Surprising Devils brace for Ovechkin, Capitals

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Friday, October 13, 2017

The surprising New Jersey Devils look to keep the good times rolling Friday night when they host the Washington Capitals at the Prudential Center, a game that features two of the highest scoring teams in the NHL.

That the highly skilled Capitals (2-1-1) scored 16 goals and averaged four per game to start the season is not stunning, especially with superstar Alex Ovechkin accounting for half that total and recording a pair of hat tricks in the first two games.

The Devils (3-0-0), though, scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference each of the last two seasons. So, to see New Jersey score six goals in each of their last two games, and 16 in the opening three games, is rather shocking.

"It's a new team, we want to play fast, in-your-face hockey, and so far we're having some success with that," said rookie defenseman Will Butcher, who has five assists already and is one of eight newcomers on the Devils roster.

The goals have come in all game situations and from some unlikely candidates to this point for the Devils, who have three short-handed goals -- one in each game -- another four on the power play and nine at even strength.

Swedish rookie Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick in the 2016 draft, leads the team with three goals and six points, setting the tone with one each on the power play, penalty kill and even strength.

During Wednesday night's wild 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto, the Devils even scored while down two men on the penalty kill. Brian Gibbons, an unexpected member of the season-opening roster, converted a rebound of Adam Henrique's shot for the first 3-on-5 goal in franchise history.

Gibbons already has two goals, as do youngsters Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha. And former Capitals forward Marcus Johansson, who will face his former teammates Friday for the first time in the regular season since being traded away this past summer, also has a pair.

Considering how little goal support he had the past two seasons, Devils goaltender Cory Schneider is thrilled with the team's offensive explosion to start the new campaign.

"It's a good feeling," Schneider told reporters Wednesday. "I don't think we're going to maintain six goals a night. Coach (John) Hynes has always said it's a race to three (goals) in this league. Right now, we seem better equipped to get to three."

Schneider made 47 saves in Toronto and is another big reason the Devils are undefeated. He has allowed only six goals and posted a .948 save percentage in the first three games. Whether he gets the start against the Capitals is not known since the Devils play on consecutive nights Friday and Saturday, and Hynes indicated backup Keith Kinkaid will start one of the two games.

The Devils need to play a stiffer game defensively and try not to rely so much on their goalie against the Capitals as that is a dangerous script to replicate against another top offensive team. Washington is coming off a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins after ringing up 14 goals in its first three games.

Ovechkin seems determined to re-assert himself as one of the league's elite players this season. He scored three goals in the season-opening win over the Ottawa Senators and two nights later put four into the back of the net against the Montreal Canadiens. He added his league-leading eighth goal in Wednesday's loss to the Penguins.

"You can see maybe he's more hungry," Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov said to The Washington Post about his high-scoring linemate. "I can see this in his eyes."

Ovechkin scored 33 goals last season, the first time since 2011-12 he did not score at least 50 in a full 82-game season. Only 16 of his goals last season came at even strength. So, after the Presidents' Trophy winners bowed out again in the second round of the playoffs, Ovechkin returned home to Russia, got in better shape physically and returned to Washington with a different intensity.

He will be a handful for the Devils on Friday, as he always is. In 45 career games against the Devils, Ovechkin has 21 goals.

Of course, he's not alone. The Capitals also feature Kuznetsov, who has eight assists already, T.J. Oshie, who is coming off a career-high 33 goals and has three in the first four games, and skilled center Nicklas Backstrom. Rookie defenseman Christian Djoos bears watching after scoring a goal and adding an assist in his NHL debut against the Penguins.

Then there is Tom Wilson, the rugged Capitals forward who will grab New Jersey's attention for multiple reasons, not the least of which is for his oft-reckless play. Wilson makes his season debut Friday after serving his second suspension already this fall for a preseason transgression.

"I expect the same Tom Wilson," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz after practice Thursday. "He's going to be a big body, hard to handle, and he's going to be a good penalty killer, detailed. I don't expect him to change other than on some decisions."

Like the Devils, the Capitals play on consecutive nights and Trotz also will play both of his goaltenders this weekend, though he did not say whether Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer starts Friday in New Jersey.